Last month the streets of New Orleans came alive for a wedding that can only be described as something taken from the page of a black love story. When a wedding is dubbed the “Royal Wedding of Zamunda,” with an obvious reference to Coming to America, you know it's not going to be anything less than spectacular. And “spectacular” is pretty much an understatement when it comes to Shantrelle P. Lewis and Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson's wedding.
The wedding combined Lawson's Nigerian culture and Lewis' New Orleanian culture, and the end result can only be described as black wedding magic. And of course it went viral. Photos and images from the wedding flooded Instagram and Facebook with the hashtag #JollofAndJambalaya, which signified parts of their culture.
But how exactly did they pull off the wedding of a lifetime? With lots of planning and love for their cultures and each other.
Although Lewis and Lawson were both freshmen at Howard University in 1996, their paths didn't cross until 17 years later, thanks to a Facebook post. At the time, Lewis, who created the Dandy Lion Project, was tagged in a Facebook post that Lawson came across.
"Tony sent me a message on Facebook in response to a post that a mutual Nigerian friend and fellow Howard alum tagged me in on Facebook regarding my Dandy Lion Project. The post popped up in Tony's newsfeed and he sent me a private message," Lewis told The Root.
"Normally I ignore random inbox messages, but something told me to respond,” she continued. “I did some quick background checks and discovered that he was one of my classmates at Howard, a British Nigerian and a pretty cool guy. After going back and forth for a couple of weeks via messages, we Skyped for the first time while I was in Montreal for a conference. The next weekend, which was Halloween, he invited me to come spend a few days with him in D.C./Maryland. The rest is kind of black history."
When images started popping up on my own personal social media feeds of Lawson and Lewis' wedding, I had to get the story on how they pulled it off. From the custom dresses and suits to even the intricately choreographed video production, this wasn't a fly-by-night type of deal. A lot went into their wedding, and it showed.
Lewis sat down with The Root to discuss the ins and outs, and hopefully their wedding can be a living Pinterest board for others.
The Root: How did you come up with the theme for the wedding?
Shantrelle P. Lewis: Tony pretty much tasked me with creating the theme for the wedding. Initially he wanted something much smaller (he's since acknowledged that he's happy that we didn't get married more quietly). Honestly, I can't say that I've had grandiose dreams of what my wedding would be like. There were certain aspects that I knew I wanted: The wedding had to be in New Orleans, we had to [have a] second line, more traditional New Orleanian ideas.
However, once I took into account that I was marrying a Yoruba man from Nigeria and had to consider his culture as well, along with my Lucumi customs and New Orleanian traditions, the “Royal Wedding of Zamunda” seemed like the perfect blend. We were able to incorporate the multifaceted aspects of our personalities, individually and as a couple. So we were able to throw an affair that was royal and Afro-opulent without being a literal translation of Coming to America.
TR: What went into actually planning it, the outfits, just about everything?
SPL: What did not go into the planning? Oddly enough, I didn't spend as much time "planning" the wedding, at least not as much as the average bride. This past year was an extremely busy year for me. I'm a curator by trade and had two major exhibitions open this year—one in San Francisco and another at the Brighton Photo Biennial. Additionally, I was working on my forthcoming book, to be released by Aperture next spring.
If that weren't enough, I work full time as a chief dream director for the Future Project, and I was completing my yearlong initiation into Lucumi priesthood. So to say that my schedule was full is to understate. Luckily enough, when it comes to aesthetics, I typically have a discerning eye, and I tend to know generally, if not specifically, what I want.
We knew that we wanted to support as many black vendors as possible, as the co-founders of Shoppe Black. I also knew that I didn't want a cookie-cutter wedding. We're both 38, Tony was married before and has two kids, so I felt like our wedding needed to reflect our non-cookie-cutter lives. Initially I wanted to wear white, but after wearing white for an entire year as a Lucumi initiate, I was over it.
Once my stationery designer, Hadiya Williams, sent me the design for the invitations, I was floored. Literally stunned and said, "That's it! I'm wearing a gold gown!" Her designs really dictated many of my decisions. She used gold wax to seal the invitations. My friend Adrian Franks designed our cameos. The details were so very important to me. I approached curating my wedding as if it were the biggest and most important exhibition that I've had to date. So everything … the website, the hashtag, the desserts, the favors, the globe and atlas sign in books, had to speak to the concepts of royalty, opulence and blackness.
TR: Did you face any obstacles with the wedding?
SPL: Thankfully I had my wedding planner, Fresh Johnson, to handle any significant obstacles. My primary obstacles were related to the fact that I was a Lucumi Iyawo (initiate) throughout the majority of my engagement. So I had many restrictions that I had to observe while planning the wedding. I couldn't try on dresses like regular brides and have parties and celebrations during that time period. I couldn't look in mirrors and touch other people.
My traveling was also restricted, so I had to be more creative about the entire planning process and executing my ideas beforehand. For instance, I relied on Fresh's judgment when it came to booking the ACE as my venue. I had already booked two other venues, but she was invited to do a walk-through of the ACE before they were even opened to the public, and she called me and said, "This is the place! It's so royal and so Zamunda."
TR: Who designed the dress, suit and wedding-party outfits?
SPL: My wedding gown was designed by 23-year-old Nate White of Nene L.A. Shiro. He is this brilliant and creative young man with this incredible studio space in Brownsville, Brooklyn[, in New York City]. I sourced my fabric, which was handmade, from India. Tony located a Liberian designer in Maryland, Connaisseur Paris, to make custom suits for him and the guys in the wedding party.
The other traditional outfits were made by two designers. [Tony's and my] outfits were custom-made by Bunmi Adenugba, TNT Fashions in Maryland, along with the guys' traditional attire. My bridal court's second outfits were made by my go-to Senegalese tailor, Futa by Chama, who is based in Brooklyn. I selected the fabric from AKN Fabrics in Manhattan, a store that specializes in imported African fabric and Dutch wax. Chama also designed the flower girl dresses.
I was supposed to change into a third outfit but didn't have enough time and ended up wearing it the next day for brunch. That worked out!
TR: What were your guests’ reactions to the wedding and reception?
SPL: Our guests were literally blown away. One often hears of multiple complaints from their guests either leading up to, during or after their wedding. We have been blown away by the responses, not only from friends and family who were in attendance but complete strangers. We've received numerous messages from people congratulating us and wishing well.
What was most surprising, however, were the amount of people who said that their lives or perspectives have been changed, based on the positivity and love they witnessed through the footage and photos. People literally have said that they are now inspired to pursue their passions, start new businesses, find their true love, etc. … and that's really humbling, knowing that an event that is really personal about two people can overflow and impact so many others so positively. More than two weeks later, and people are still calling me, texting me and emailing us about that wedding. Like people are literally still on a high.
TR: Did you think your wedding was going to go viral?
SPL: We most certainly did not know that it was going to go viral! I knew that my photos would be out of this world, thanks to Bee and Rog. I also knew that the video would be bananas because my friend Alex is a phenomenal filmmaker who learned the craft by competing in 48-hour film festivals. But never in our wildest imaginations did we think it was going to go viral.
Funny enough, our friend Joan Morgan was feeling conflicted about whether or not she should come to the wedding or attend a couple of conferences happening that same weekend. I told her, "Twin, I won't feel any kind of way if you can't make it to the wedding, but you will feel some kind of way if you choose to do something else once you see those photos and films." She came back to me during the brunch we hosted the day after the wedding and said, "Girl, you were right."
I think, postelection and in lieu of the current sociopolitical madness we've been dealing with internationally, people needed a double dose of something magical and powerful. I have friends abroad who have even used the video in recent presentations at museum conversations to discuss the power of African-centered black aesthetics. That's wild!
What's even crazier is that none of those videos were rehearsed. Everything was candid and impromptu. Even the Mannequin Challenge. We didn't even have a radio outside. I think somebody started singing the song and we were like, OK, on 3, we're going to pose. Same thing with the video that we're calling “The Last First Supper.” Our planner, Fresh, was trying to get us to keep still for a photo in our traditional outfits. But some song came on that apparently was everybody's jam, and that was a wrap. Alex, being the magician that he was, captured it, and the result was pure magic.
TR: If there was one thing you could change about the wedding, what would it be?
SPL: The amount of people who could make it. We ended up with a little over 300 guests in attendance. We invited 426. I wish that we could have invited more and that many of the other people we invited could have made it. It was a life-affirming event, definitely unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life.
TR: Where did you honeymoon?
SPL: This year has been a nonstop whirlwind, and we both thought it would be best to spend the rest of the year resting and prepping for next year. We're going to visit Johannesburg and Capetown for [our] honeymoon early next year. We both have a lot going on between exhibition openings, SMW Lagos and the book release in the first quarter of the year, so we're trying to find time that makes sense for both of us to be able to escape and unplug for several days.
TR: After completing the wedding, which is a project of a lifetime, what other projects are you and Tony working on?
SPL: The Dandy Lion Project is traveling to Miami's Lowe Museum of Art. Additionally, the book will be released in early spring! I'm stoked about how tremendously the project has grown. Also, now that the book will be out, it will give me an opportunity to focus on other projects, namely my documentary about race and racism in the Netherlands. Also, I intend to spend much of 2017 building Shoppe Black with Tony. It's an innovative startup, and we both have some fantastic ideas about the impact it can have on our community and society globally.